A Language beyond Sound: Making the Gospel Available to the Hearing-Impaired


Most of us live in a world of sound. It is a world where a cooing baby can make us smile, a fingernail scratching down a chalkboard can make us cringe. We can chat with someone in the dark. We can hear someone call us from the next room. We can talk with a friend as we drive along with our car windows rolled up and the radio on—and still hear a horn honking. We can follow this week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson while jotting down a list of things to do—and even overhear a whispered conversation on the next row.

Perhaps most miraculously, we learn to speak so effortlessly—and so early—that later, as adults, we don’t even recall the process. Surrounded by speech, some of us speak our first words before our first birthday. As preschoolers, we have already mastered the basics of our native language. For most of us, learning to read comes almost as naturally.

But for thousands of Church members who have impaired hearing, the world is far different. Some, such as the “profoundly deaf,” may be unable to hear loud noises or to distinguish speech sounds from other sounds. All who are called “deaf” have insufficient hearing for the ordinary purposes of life. The “hard of hearing” can hear speech and can function in the hearing world—but often only with hearing aids and other special helps.

The causes of hearing impairment are many, from accident to illness, from heredity to age. But whatever the cause or degree, hearing impairment can make communication difficult and frustrating. When communication is difficult, so is learning. And so is feeling close to other people.

“No Bedtime Stories”

How would it feel to be born totally deaf and to lack a channel of communication? A prominent educator who is deaf explains how he perceived his world as a young child: “If you are a deaf child in a hearing home, … there are no bedtime stories. Other children say nothing. Television is just pictures. Telephones are useless, and radio doesn’t exist. You cannot ask for toys or even for a drink of water. When you are frightened, you cannot tell anybody. You do not even know you have a name.” (Mervin D. Garretson, “Deafness: America’s Invisible Handicap,” U.S. News and World Report, 19 Oct. 1987, p. 58.)

For such a child, gospel songs and stories seem not to exist. Charlene O’Neal of Salt Lake City recalls daydreaming through the Church meetings of her childhood. “I’d ask, ‘Mommy, what did they say?’ She would promise to tell me later, but somehow later didn’t always come.”

Adding Access to Ability

Deaf people do not lack the ability to learn. What they may lack is an adequate channel of communication through which information can pass. “It’s a matter of access,” explains Dr. Barry Critchfield. Dr. Critchfield is director of mental health services for the deaf for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. He explains that, lacking access to information, many children lag several grade levels behind others their age in reading and other subjects.

Keri Fullmer was just four days old when her mother, Rinda, noticed that a barking dog didn’t startle her baby. A brain-stem analysis confirmed that Keri was deaf. But Rinda Fullmer was determined to find a way to communicate with her baby. She and her husband and their two daughters immediately began learning sign language. At five months, Keri was making a few signs. When she was eight months old, she made her first two-sign phrase: “More cookies.” At age five, Keri could read thirty words and was learning to read lips and speak. Last fall, she entered first grade on the same level as her peers.

“You do whatever you have to do to establish communication—even if it means standing on your head and drawing a picture,” says Sister Fullmer. “The form of language you use is not important. Children just need to be able to make sense of their world.”

So that Keri could learn about the gospel, her parents and others have interpreted Primary lessons for her. Having someone teach Keri one-on-one in sign language has transformed her from a child who threw tantrums in Church meetings to one who enjoys Primary. Several members of the Fullmers’ ward and stake in Salem, Oregon, just “happened” to have been learning sign language, without really knowing why at the time. These members have been glad to teach Keri. One of these, who was Keri’s Star A teacher, returned to Church activity through teaching Keri. Keri’s bishop is now learning sign language. And when Sister Fullmer sings in the ward choir, she signs as she sings.

For Keri, the efforts of her family and ward members have given her access to the fellowship and teachings of the gospel.

A Bilingual Approach

Keri’s first language is American Sign Language (ASL). English is her second language. This “bilingual” approach is just what Dr. Critchfield suggests for those who were born deaf or who became deaf before they learned a spoken language. ASL, or another sign language, is taught first and then used to teach English as a second language.

In the past, many people have thought of sign language as an inferior substitute for the spoken word. But recent research on ASL shows that it is a “real” language—a powerful and complete one. ASL uses a system of motions and facial expressions, and it has a grammar and syntax all its own. According to Dr. Oliver Sacks, ASL is “capable of expressing not only every emotion but every proposition and enabling its users to discuss any topic, concrete or abstract, as economically and effectively and grammatically as speech.” (Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1989, p. 20.)

Research shows that learning ASL may even aid in learning spoken language. Apparently, learning ASL in the first few years of life puts the basic rules for processing language in place in the deaf child’s brain. With these “rules” in place, a person can then master another language.

It is important to know that a person fluent in ASL would not necessarily be equally fluent in reading English, just as someone fluent in French would not necessarily be fluent in reading English. For this reason, the Church is now in the process of translating and videotaping the Book of Mormon in ASL.

No Typical Deaf Person

Keri’s story is not typical, however. In fact, it would be just as hard to find a typical deaf person as it would be to find a typical hearing person. Consequently, there is no one approach to dealing with hearing impairment that will serve everyone affected. Some, for example, prefer an “oral program” instead of ASL or a bilingual approach.

Dianne Ruth Kellermeyer was just two and a half when the mumps destroyed most of her hearing capability. But she was a highly verbal child whose father had already introduced her to word play. “He taught me to say, ‘alligator, elevator, escalator,’” she recalls. Like the Fullmers, Dianne’s parents acted quickly. But rather than helping her learn to sign, the Ruths enrolled Dianne in an oral program to help her retain and expand her verbal ability.

Oral programs focus on teaching deaf children to lip-read, or “speech-read,” spoken language, with hearing aids helping them make the most of any remaining hearing they might have. Oral teachers also concentrate on teaching their students to speak understandably. They discourage the use of sign language, which they feel interferes with learning to understand and produce speech.

Dianne was an extremely able student and learned to function so well in the hearing world that by seventh grade she entered a regular junior high school. “My parents always expected me to give talks in church,” she recalls. “I got all my individual awards in MIA; I went to camp.”

Several technological advances make Dianne’s life easier: a portable telephone amplifier that she takes to work and a monitor that flashes if her four-year-old daughter, Katharine, cries in another room. Dianne has served in a Relief Society presidency and has taught a Gospel Doctrine Sunday School class.

Dianne feels that her oral education has been ideal for her. She knows very little sign language and is happy to feel integrated with the world of the hearing—one of the chief aims of the oral approach.

Finding What Works

Not all deaf people find the method of communication that suits them best as early in life as Keri and Dianne did. Rob Smith, who has been deaf from birth, was trained using the oral approach. But in his case, Rob found it hard to follow his Primary and Sunday School lessons. “Everything happened so fast,” he recalls. “I was in seminary before I found out that Lehi had come from Jerusalem to America.”

Rob found the key to understanding the gospel and many other subjects when he entered the Missionary Training Center, where he learned the missionary discussions in American Sign Language. He then served as one of many missionaries with the additional assignment of teaching the gospel to people with hearing impairments.

Today Brother Smith serves as second counselor in the Provo Forty-fifth (Deaf) Branch in Provo, Utah. He conducts sacrament meetings with an infectious smile, signing as he speaks. (This combination of sign language and speech, a third approach for communicating with the hearing impaired, is referred to as “simultaneous communication.” Using signs only is called “manual communication.”)

What determines which mode of communication will work best for any one person? The first factor is the degree and type of hearing loss. Without some hearing in the frequency range of the human voice, learning to speak well would be extremely difficult.

The second factor is the stage of language development at the onset of deafness. Those who have learned the essentials of a spoken language before becoming deaf may be more successful with the oral method.

The third factor involves aptitude. Speech-reading requires an aptitude that not all have or choose to develop. Some professionals estimate that only about 25 percent of spoken English can be accurately discerned by sight. Imagine trying to tell just by sight whether someone is saying “8:15” or “8:50.” Now imagine that the speaker has a mustache, talks fast, or keeps turning his head. Words not discernible by sight alone must be guessed at by piecing together clues from the context of the conversation.

Some deaf adults who were taught in a mode that was not successful may react bitterly by rejecting their family, the Church, or the hearing society in general. They may feel abandoned or patronized even by those people who have earnestly tried to do what they felt was best.

For parents, decisions about their children’s education can be emotional. One mother remembers her frustration when her daughter didn’t seem to be doing well in the approach first selected. “Through it all, I learned that it was important to do whatever was necessary to establish communication,” she recalls. Now her daughter uses both sign language and speech. She attends a regular ward with her family, but her parents invite her deaf friends over so she can enjoy being with them, too. “I want her to be able to function in the hearing world,” her mother says, “but I don’t want her to feel that she needs to be just like a hearing person to be accepted.”

Turning Isolation to Fellowship

One of the most devastating of any of the problems deafness can cause is social isolation. Helen Keller felt that her deafness was a greater handicap than her blindness. She explained that while blindness separates people from things in the world, deafness separates people from other people.

One deaf man explains how he feels at social activities he attends with his hearing relatives: “My relatives greet me very happily and ask all kinds of questions. Then, five minutes later, they go away by themselves, chatting away. I feel lonely after that and watch TV or read papers.” (Leo M. Jacobs, A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press, 1980, p. 154.)

The isolation the hearing-impaired can feel is vividly illustrated by an experience Dr. Critchfield tells. Brother Critchfield, at that time the president of a branch for the deaf, had gone to the home of a young member for a visit. As the young man’s mother watched Brother Critchfield talking in sign language with her son, she began to cry. “You have talked more with my son in the last half hour than I have in his whole life,” she said.

In areas with many deaf Church members, the Church organizes wards and branches for those among the deaf who feel uncomfortable or cannot communicate in a hearing ward. Here deaf members can enjoy two precious commodities: real understanding and unrestricted communication. The deaf give talks, pray, and perform ordinances—using sign language, accompanied by interpreters who speak the words for those trained in oral communication.

Ward members stay long after meetings to share fellowship. For them, the week of struggling to make themselves understood in the hearing world may seem long. But on Sunday the air almost buzzes with excitement as friends greet each other with warmth and animation.

Where there are not enough deaf members to form a unit, the Church has another way of helping to make the teachings, ordinances, and fellowship of the gospel available to its deaf members. A hearing ward may be assigned as a host ward for a group of deaf members within a stake or region. In this ward, interpreters are taught sign language, then asked to sign at classes and meetings for those who communicate only with ASL. Other ward members may also learn sign language so they can communicate better with deaf members. And special Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society classes may be formed so that deaf members may teach one another.

Even when there are not enough deaf members to form a deaf group, several ward members may be assigned to serve as interpreters. Ideally, these should be people who are not family members of the deaf person.

“That All May Be Edified Together”

Can people without a common language truly understand one other? Can they all be “edified together”? (See D&C 84:110.)

Whenever two language groups meet, the group strongest in numbers or power ordinarily expects the smaller group to adapt to its language. But when hearing and deaf members meet in the fellowship of the gospel, the reverse must often be true; deaf people cannot learn to hear, but hearing people can learn to sign.

From one nineteenth-century American community comes an example of a true merging of the worlds of the hearing and the deaf. Because of intermarriage, a hereditary form of deafness affected one out of four people on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. “In response to this,” writes Dr. Oliver Sacks, “the entire community learned Sign, and there was complete and free [communication] between the hearing and the deaf. Indeed the deaf were scarcely seen as ‘deaf,’ and certainly not seen as being ‘handicapped.’” (Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, p. 33.)

Responding More Sensitively

Short of creating such a community, how can Church members and leaders respond more sensitively to the needs of the hearing-impaired?

  1. 1.

    Ask the deaf members (or, if they are children, their parents) what mode of communication they prefer. If they prefer ASL, then find out if they need interpreters. Consult with deaf members about what seating and lighting is best for them and where an interpreter might best be placed if they need one. Ask what teaching methods might enhance their understanding. One mother said, “My deaf daughter had a teacher who often played cassette tapes for her class. I wish she had asked for my suggestions.” (Teachers and leaders can find helpful ideas in Interpreting for Deaf Members, Stock no. 53153, available from Church distribution centers.)

  2. 2.

    Learn some sign language yourself. Those who use only sign language will appreciate your extra attention. Nine-year-old Emma Thompson of Vermillion, South Dakota, was thrilled when her branch president learned to sign “Hello,” “Emma,” and “I love you” in ASL. Emma’s mother, Karen Thompson, reports that “this has made him her friend for life.”

  3. 3.

    Assign members to learn sign language and then to interpret for deaf members who use sign language. Deaf children, especially teenagers, may not want a parent to be their only interpreter.

  4. 4.

    Use all available resources and technology. The closed-caption decoder for satellite broadcasts of Church meetings can help not only the deaf but also many elderly people and people who are hard of hearing. The bishop may also need a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) to facilitate telephone communication with deaf members.

  5. 5.

    Don’t assume you know the limitations or abilities of a deaf person. One capable, articulate deaf woman was asked to help only with crafts projects in her hearing ward. Those trained in the oral method may function much as hearing members do. Those who use ASL may only need an interpreter to serve effectively as teachers and leaders.

  6. 6.

    Learn how to speak to people who are deaf. Remember the following steps:

    • Get the person’s attention. Try to wave at him or her or give a light tap on the shoulder.

    • Speak slowly and clearly, but without exaggerating your volume or pronunciation.

    • Look directly at the person, and don’t put anything in your mouth while you are speaking. Maintain eye contact.

    • If speaking through an interpreter, directly address the deaf person. Don’t turn to the interpreter and say, “Tell her …”

    • If you have problems making yourself understood, rephrase your thought. If that fails, try pencil and paper.

    • If you are teaching a class, use visual aids and an interpreter, if needed. Seat the class in a semicircle so that the deaf person can see everyone’s face, including yours. Slow down your presentation slightly. Offer hands-on experiences to illustrate new concepts. In advance, write scriptures on posters or on the chalkboard so you can look directly at the class as you teach.

  7. 7.

    Find ways to get hearing people and deaf people involved together socially. Sometimes so much goes on at social activities that people don’t have much chance to communicate. Stopping by to visit a deaf person in his or her own home or inviting a deaf person into your home can strengthen feelings of fellowship.

Technological and Other Resources

The following devices and resources are available to help hearing-impaired members:

  1. 1.

    Closed-caption decoder. All Church satellite broadcasts are close-captioned for the hearing-impaired. The decoder, which is a small box that plugs into a VCR, makes these captions visible on the screen.

  2. 2.

    TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf). Ward leaders can use these typewriter/telephones to communicate with members who have them in their homes.

  3. 3.

    COMTEK system. This system sends sound directly from the microphone to a hearing aid, cutting out background noise. Available in most meetinghouse chapels, this system can help many hearing-impaired people hear sacrament meeting speakers and prayers.

  4. 4.

    Videotapes produced especially for hearing-impaired members. Most Church videos are close-captioned. Some also have sign-language insets. Others, such as And They Shall Have Joy and Gospel Principles, use sign language only. The Church is also in the process of producing an American sign-language version of the Book of Mormon on video. For a complete list, see the Church distribution center catalogs.

  5. 5.

    Relay services. Many cities and states in the United States have a relay service for the hearing-impaired. This service allows hearing people who don’t have a TDD to communicate with the hearing-impaired through an operator who uses a TDD.

  6. 6.

    “Hearing dogs.” Specially trained dogs can help deaf persons “hear” everyday sounds they would otherwise miss.

  7. 7.

    Special curriculum materials from Church headquarters. Contact the Special Curriculum Office, 24th floor, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.

  8. 8.

    Brigham Young University workshops for the deaf. For information, contact Youth and Family Programs at BYU (801-378-6696 Voice/TDD).

[photos] Photography by John Luke

[photo] There is more than one approach to dealing with hearing impairment. A method called simultaneous communication combines speech and signing. Here a speaker declares, “I am a child of God.”

[photo] The hearing-impaired are blessed today with a number of resources that help them function more easily. From left, counterclockwise: a video created especially for the hearing-impaired; some of the videos and other special curriculum materials the Church has produced; and a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD) hooked up to a telephone.

Jan Underwood Pinborough serves as Relief Society education counselor in the Edgehill Second Ward, Salt Lake Hillside Stake.